Towards universal development

Published on 11 October 2017

John Gaventa

Research Fellow and Director, Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme

This month saw the release of an important IDS Bulletin entitled ‘Has Universal Development Come of Age?’ The Bulletin shows that thinking beyond traditional binaries – whether North and South or developed and developing countries – has a long history within IDS. For those of us who believe that development is and must be a universal issue, recovering this history gives us a strong base upon which we can build, to be even more courageous and innovative in recognizing the universal relevance of development for the future.

In our current IDS strategy, we say ‘our vision is of equal and sustainable societies, locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives, free from poverty and injustice’. Such a vision knows no geographical boundaries, and our work on reducing inequalities, accelerating sustainability and building inclusive and secure societies is relevant across these boundaries.

My personal journey in development, and attempts to work in a universal way

For me, the relevance of development debates across global divides has been an important part of my own journey. Shortly after leaving University in the US many years ago, I found myself volunteering in a remote, rural community whose accents and culture were somewhat strange, and where I was clearly seen as an outsider.  Later this became the area and subject of my PhD thesis, and my book Power and Powerlessness. The community was characterised by extreme poverty, high illiteracy rates, and lack of access to services. While I was there, on the national Independence Day, the community celebrated the opening of a community well, dug and paid for by an outside charitable NGO. The land was absentee owned, the rich natural resources of timber and minerals were exported, and the founder of the company (which some 80 years before had colonized the area) was compared when he died by a local newspaper to Cecil Rhodes, and lauded for opening up one of the ‘waste places of the world’. Years later, the land had been denuded by unsustainable timbering and mining practices, the plentiful water polluted, thus the need for the community-owned well. Politics were corrupt, taxation on the mineral wealth virtually non-existent, and power relations highly unequal, linked to a local political elite who in turn were deeply connected to the outside owners of the area. Violence, especially against those who dared to speak out, was rampant.

I could go on, but by now you may guessed the punchline: what I have described could have been many parts of Asia, Africa or Latin America, but it was not. It was, and is, part of rural United States, less than 500 miles from the nation’s capital.

It was there that I really began to understand what ‘development’ – or rather, ‘mal-development’ was about, and also the importance popular and policy efforts to address issues of inequality, sustainability, and building secure communities. Some twenty years later, after continuing for two decades to work on these issues in rural America, I applied to work at IDS. At the time I, and I expect many others, wondered whether my experience of development inside the world’s richest country would ‘travel’ to this more internationally oriented development institute. Of course there are differences across the world,  but somehow those early experiences in my own country, and the lessons I learned there, remain my touchstone, to which I constantly turn.

Strategies for ‘universalising’ development

As we pursue the theme of how to rise to the challenge of ‘universalising’ development in our work, whether as students, researchers or activists, this latest IDS Bulletin shows us there are countless ways that we can do so.

In the 1998 IDS Bulletin from which editor Richard Longhurst draws some of his articles,  Simon Maxwell talks about three ways in which research can help to make the connections across North and South – and towards universal development:

  1. Look for comparisons. How are development issues experienced differently in differing contexts? How are they the same?  In an excellent blog following the fire at the London’s Grenfell Tower, IDS Fellow Jaideep Gupta reminded us that the experience in London was not unique, but a logical consequence of the rapidly growing phenomena of unaccountable governance and housing inequalities around the world. In my own article in the 1998 IDS Bulletin (republished in this latest IDS Bulletin) I compare how policies to promote participation in programmes for poverty-alleviation in the US had a long but largely failed track-record, yet  the US promoted them abroad, usually without awareness of their own historic roots and legacies at home. So let’s search for comparisons and parallels.
  2. Look at interconnections. In a global world, the destinies of groups, communities and nations are deeply interconnected.  Conflict and inequality in Africa and the Middle East shape migration to the UK; policies in the UK shape the nature of such conflict and inequality. In my earlier work in Appalachia, one such interconnection was seen in the tragic events of Bhopal, the toxic gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in India that killed and maimed thousands. But that plant, and its history was connected to similar plants in my region, also located in poor and marginalised communities. By looking at these interconnections, and by making connections between Carbide affected communities in North and South, we were able to build awareness of the issues and commonalities of environmental injustice in both places.
  3. Explore convergences. While across the world we see an enormous diversity of histories and identities, global interconnections also bring convergences of cultures, ideas, and power. In such convergences we realise that the neat division of Norths and Souths no longer works, if it ever did. We know now that there are concentrations of poverty and exclusion in the North as well as growing areas of globally interconnected power and privileges in the South. One area in which these convergences is seen sharply is in the work we have done on inequality, leading to the recent World Social Science Report on inequality. In that Report we reprint the famous Milanovic graph which shows the two groups who are the major losers in the contemporary rise of inequality: the extremely poor, largely located in parts of Asia and Africa, and the working classes of Europe and the US, who also have been ‘left behind’ by the global economy. We look at the consequences of inequality, across these regions, and spaces, drawing many parallels and convergences.

Through addressing the contrasts and parallels, the interconnections of groups and communities, and the convergences of power and resistance around the world, we have enormous opportunities to develop a research agenda that goes beyond geographical boundaries and artificial binaries. This IDS Bulletin, as well as other recent examples of work in this area, give us the precedents on which to build. The Sustainable Development Goals – which apply across North and South add legitimacy to this task. Let’s seize the moment!

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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